Learning Language — or Why Understanding the Neurobiology of Education Matters for Educational Reform


Tango Show, Buenos Aires, 2013

I came across this post on Medium by Charles Scalfani regarding how to rapidly learn languages.  This topic has been covered by others before, but his piece nicely reinforces concepts that I’ve discussed regarding the Neurobiology of Education and Critical Thinking . Scalfani disses hard on the academic modality of dumping grammar and vocabulary on students’ heads, and instead advises bootstrapping through conversational experience as the way we learn to speak when we’re kids.  Modern language instruction is classic ‘neglect all the principles I’ve written about here’, with lots of emphasis on Left Brain Explicit Knowledge Acquisition, and very little Right Brain Autobiographical Integration.

Here’s the super-figure to inspire you to go back and read that post.  Considering the complexity of the issue, it’s pretty minimal on the Squirrel Talk!

Modified Practice Active Learning

He does make the extremely important point that one of the big flaws in the standard academic approach to learning a language is to have kids speak in front of the class.  Since the #1 fear of Americans is public speaking, it’s no surprise that the amygdala cuts off transfer by the hippocampus from the left brain/explicit learning  to the right brain/autobiographical-holistic learning.

Standard academic teaching of foreign languages is also a great example of how knowledge structures generated by academic social structures fall far short of the task of getting students up and running with speaking languages early.  Authoritarian knowledge fragments (like vocabulary words and short phrases!) and Legalistic/Absolutistic rules (like the grammar that is drilled in) , which are the standard knowledge structures generated by academic hierarchies, are short on real meaning for students, because almost all of it ends up on the Left side of the Neocortex.  The idea that the Left brain is going to construct translated sentences — which is what almost all of us do when learning a language — implies double jeopardy when you attempt to speak to someone.  First, you have to memorize the explicit knowledge and put it on the Left side.  Then you have to access deeper meaning in your native language on the Right side.  Then that has to get pulled back and mapped on the Left side.  It’s no wonder that students too often hate learning a language, and their attempts at even simple conversations are stuttering.  It’s a whole new set of pathways that have to get trodden every time you want to make a sentence.

Where stakes really matter, and teaching has to take a minimal amount of time (Mormons, Foreign Service, and the Peace Corps!) immersion is the rule.  For myself, I have a discipline that I attempt to follow that if I’m going to visit a country, I have to at least know a little of the language.  My favorite mode is to use Pimsleur recordings, which also follow modestly that holistic mapping of a new language on top of a holistic understanding of English.  I’m no true polyglot — but I can speak five different languages mediocrely.  🙂  One of the biggest information integration insights I’ve found is that one of the keys to speaking is to integrate the base level sounds, or phonemes, into your brain at the earliest possible stage.  The further away from English (like Mandarin) a language is, the more critical this is.  People hear sounds differently in different parts of the world.  The only way to get those sounds is by actually listening to the language.  That’s where the Pimsleur recordings shine.

Academia is changing, especially with respect to teaching foreign languages.  But change is slow.  Part of the problem once again comes down to empathetic development in the academy.  There seems to be a disconnect with many language professors that the reason for learning a language is now primarily conversation.  Learning how to ask someone for directions seems much lower status than reading Goethe in German.  And these language education traditions die hard, because it was only a relatively short time ago, the idea of jetting around the globe on a whim, or for vacation, was really not an option.  So any higher Performance v-Meme need for language was mostly deciphering complex grammar of classical texts.

Now people just want to go to a beach in Costa Rica and order a mojito.  Here’s hoping that, once again, the academy catches up with the modern world.  All my professor friends out there — speaking foreign languages poorly, as opposed to not speaking them at all, is a GOOD thing.  Like Mark Twain said, nothing is more lethal to ignorance than travel.  That’s a value I know that every academic can get behind.  But the real key behind the enlightenment travel offers is true empathy for others.  And that is profoundly facilitated by connected conversation.

2 thoughts on “Learning Language — or Why Understanding the Neurobiology of Education Matters for Educational Reform

  1. Tim ferris’ episode on “how to learn anything fast” follows this idea. Cool story is how he learned Japanese from a judo manual so that he could pass school. He found himself throw into an all Japanese school as an exchange student. And he did not know the language.


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